Gnu Atheist and the Autonomy of Morality


Through comments and discussions, I am being introduced to the new / gnu atheist and some of the stances or philosophies that they follow. Not being from that camp, it has been a bit slow to listen to their point of view and be able to see the logic in their philosophies. I say their as a generalization as I do not intend to offend any of the gnu’ers by implying that they think or believe a certain way or that I did not go far enough. If I am wrong, please be patient and help me see the error in my understanding.

After reading up a bit on the argument for autonomy in thinking and in forming a moral base, it is implied that religion denies people the ability to full develop a moral view apart from the moral view that is imposed on them by the religious group that they are influenced by. It is a common problem, that people are influenced by their peer group and the values of the group are not always the values of the individual. The individual can choose to disagree with the group and act in their own autonomy, but they risk being mocked/attacked for being different and even removed from the group depending on the groups dynamics and the degree of difference.

From the view point of the gnu atheist, the individual is their own master and if a person chooses to accept the moral view of another as their own, they end up denying themselves the opportunity to fully develop their own moral center as they were influenced by another. I can see the logic that as a child is raised in a household or around an environment where a religion has the ability to shape the moral views and perspectives, that the child will be more inclined to accept those values as their own, which as the gnu atheist will point out stunts the individual from exploring themselves in order to develop their own morality.

So a person, who is under the influence of a type of totalitarian type environment will never fully be able to fully develop their own moral identity and instead be forced to accept the views of others as to what I right and wrong. The individual was able to achieve autonomy in the development because they made the choice to accept the view of the masses, but the moral view never reached a state of maturity because it was forced to conform to a limited view that was imposed on it. Similar to the binding of a woman’s feet. If they are not allowed to grow, they are stunted and deformed.

Now the individual still has the ability to develop their moral stance, but this can happen only by questioning or casting off the restraints and exploring. By casting off the restraints of religion, a person can fully develop into humanism by accepting the morality that is best for humanity. The person can explore and experience life in order to fully develop their own truths, which lessons the oppression that is imposed on humanity as a whole.

I think I got that right.

I have to admit it is a valid philosophy. I understand the need to explore and decide on what is right and wrong. A child, no matter of its environment, will explore and test the boundaries to see what is and is not acceptable. A religion can shape that in one direction, but at the same time a lack of religion will still have a view of morality in which that child will be allowed to function. That is basic child development. How ever you choose to raise up a child is basically the course their life will take.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Gnu Atheist and the Autonomy of Morality

  1. if you cannot distinguish between moral right and wrong

    then accepting a list of what a group – any group – says is moral

    means that you’re not able to make distinctions when the list of rules conflict or unanticipated circumstances arise

    we don’t always have all the information, so by limiting our options to a list of rules, means that your options are limited

    • so to fully develop morality means that a person is the ultimate authority for what is right or wrong in their own life?

      • that’s the face that you have to look at in the mirror, so yes

        but to be socially capable, you have to also understand that everyone’s idea of morality varies, and that the law of the land provides the minimum level required to be a member of the society

      • So, since society provides a system of beliefs that it imposes on people, society is just as much of a hindrance to the autonomous development of a person as religion is.

      • society provides a context of minimum standards

        it still comes back to the person

        I don’t not murder someone because the law says I shouldn’t
        I don’t murder because I value life as being our one shot to exist; how could I take that away from someone?

        I don’t steal not because I could be charged, criminal charges are not the social impediment they used to be and in some quarters, a criminal record is a matter of pride and achievement.

        I don’t steal because I wouldn’t like it if someone stole from me –

        I don’t oppress people because I know what it’s like to be oppressed and legally lesser than.

        and that’s really the thing

        I grew up in Canada with all the rights of anyone else – until I came out and suddenly it was legal to fire me – and 2 bosses did.

        The law allowed them to take out their bigotry and I had no legal corrective process.

        having no rights in a rights based society
        gives you a very intimate understanding of the difference between what’s moral and what’s legal.

        and if you really want to know how unequal people are willing to treat others when they can – just tell people you’re gay and see how differently they behave towards you.

        Because anyone who treats you differently, is showing you the caliber of their morals.

  2. Morality develops in humans. This fundamental understanding is really important and is backed by a sound consensus in a variety of disciplines like child psych, biology, neuroscience, sociology, etc..

    When it comes to child development, it helps parents immensely to understand how they can aid in the quality of this natural development and this is where the notion of autonomy, meaning the right to make informed and responsible decisions, becomes a very important consideration.

    Listening and learning to trust our biology for moral guidance is a fascinating area of child development as well as understanding and successfully predicting adult behaviour, but I won’t go into this here; instead I’ll touch on the question about how effective religion is in ‘teaching’ children about moral autonomy.

    When we turn to religion to provide us with some kind of moral blueprint with preset moral rules and prohibitions based on some divine authority, the question we have to ask is whether this model aids, is neutral, or impedes moral development.

    I think the evidence is very strong and quite compelling that religious authority for morality does not serve a healthy development of moral autonomy for children because children do things not because they think it is the right thing do given the circumstances and intentions, but because it the right thing to do according to some authority other than their own. This actually stunts moral autonomy. Moral autonomy is developed by owning our actions, accepting the consequences, learning that our actions have effects we may not have considered, but knowing that we sometimes have to act as best we can without knowing all the facts. And isn’t this true of life we face as adults? The bottom line in developing healthy autonomy in children lies in the answer to the following question: is the child doing something because he or she thinks it’s the right thing to do or is the child doing something because he or she thinks it’s what someone else wants them to do? Healthy autonomy does not emerge out of the latter. Dependence does.

    • If i’m correct, this is about being your own moral authority. But, doesn’t all form of morality come from an outside source? no matter our view of morality, it is still influenced largely by events outside us, by our perception of those events. As a person grows, he begins to see things in a better light. A child can only see so much, just the same way you only understood some stuffs your parents did until you grew up. Even if a child is allowed to be his own moral authority, he still makes those standards by what he sees his parents doing, so really, he isn’t his own authority. Try letting a child be their own moral authority…in fact, try it on your own child. All these stuffs are nice until we try them on ourselves, or our loved ones.
      And, If you depend on an outside source for life and your next breath, if you aren’t the one that decides how long you live, or if you aren’t the one that made yourself, why should you choose the direction of your life? Sorry guy, i don’t know how practical those things are in the U.S but here in Nigeria, you’ll be deceiving yourself with ‘plenty plenty grammar’ if you live like this.

      • But, doesn’t all form of morality come from an outside source?

        There is no evidence that what we call morality originates or is developed anywhere other than within the biology that houses it. Children as young as four months demonstrate moral preferences and they overwhelming reflect rewarding pro-social kind behaviour over selfish and unkind behaviour. There are very good neurological explanations for this that require no attributions beyond a person’s interactions with their environment.

        You confuse moral authority with independence. Responsible independence that includes moral autonomy is what is being taught over a child’s lifetime in preparation for responsible adulthood, not freedom from responsibility and consequence as you have implied. Responsibility for those who made you – your parents – is conditional as are all responsibilities you hold for others. One of those conditions is freedom to choose, for without freedom to choose to do otherwise, responsibility for others becomes indentured servitude and a form of emotional slavery. The trust one has in the exercise of reciprocity in any relationship depends very much on the intentions of both parties in a responsible relationship; assuming one is owed servitude is hardly a way to empower healthy reciprocity between equals but a very good way to empower animosity and ill will and abuse. If this is your idea of good parenting, then you will enjoy the fruits of your labour and get back exactly this.

    • “There is no evidence that what we call morality originates or is developed anywhere other than within the biology that houses it”

      This is what has me confused. Not that we are born with a sense of right and wrong, cause the Bible even says that, but why is it restricted only to the biological composition of humans? How does it not evolve in any other species?

      As for children, their natural reaction to a conflict is to strike out. That is the biology of the animal acting out. Now, we could allow them to develop autonomy in their choices, but we do not. We, as adults, impose rules on them. Yes they are able to break the rules, but they must also suffer the consequences. This is your key to moral autonomous development right? Wouldn’t they be better served, in developing autonomy by not being disciplined by an outside force? When one child strikes another, for true autonomy to develop, an adult should not interfere and instead hope that the child will understand that their actions hurt another and made them sad so thus they should not take that course of action. Problem with this stance is that the children do not learn boundaries and instead will continue on with actions that satisfies their needs. For true autonomy to develop at a child’s level, you bring about a chaotic reaction to organization and structure. Let me know how that works for your kids.

      • Xander, you’ve jumped on a horse you think is mine and run off to the races with it.

        First, morality has to to do with recognizing right from wrong, so at first glance we may assume morality should be local… meaning that whatever the group one is born into deems what is right and what is wrong. There is much evidence that this does come into play in social interactions but it is not the whole story.

        There is excellent evidence that we share a common understanding of basic moral rules that crosses all boundaries like race, ethnicity, language, religious affiliation, culture, age, and gender. This is striking in that it doesn’t have to be this way yet it is. Of course, we then find ourselves revisiting the nature versus nurture debate but at least it puts to bed the notion of tabula rosa. We are not born morally empty but come biologically equipped to show preferences even at the infant stage of development for pro-social behaviour and negative responses in infants to anti-social behaviour. How can this be?

        Well, a central component of recognizing how the actions of another might feel resides in special neurons all mammals have called mirror neurons that activate the viewing brain simply by observing the same actions of another. In this way we mammals ‘feel’ what it is like to undertake the actions made by another. How cool is that? These neurons play a key role in activating a limbic response (the emotional cascade of released neural transmitters). We call this emotional connection to another ’empathy’. Without going into any detail, the hypothesis is that social critters have developed a network of mirror neurons; so far, this is borne out. But we’re also right at the front end of neuroscience and just now starting to gain access to how our brains actually work. Very exciting times.

        Obviously, if we can better understand how children actually develop, this understanding allows us the potential to do a better job at aiding and enhancing this development.

        What you have described, Xander, is not ‘natural’… in the sense that when in conflict with another, the child will always strike out. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. But rest assured children learn at mach speed what works for them! Some children will gain a toy, for example, but lose a playmate. Another child might gain a playmate but lose a toy. And some children will learn how to gain both. We are remarkable adaptive mammals. Learning how to be responsibly autonomous is just one more aspect of our development from childhood into adulthood. And learning to recognize boundaries is part and parcel of this process.

        As for your suggestion about ‘discipline’, remember what the term actually means: to teach. Delivering pain is rarely an effective method of teaching anyone anything other than how to best avoid it, which is why children who are the most proficient liars correlate beautifully to home environments that are the most physically coercive.

      • Your right in that not all children will act out in a physical way. Some children slink away and are sad and others will outwit the other and get what they want. Children are very adaptive early on but become more set in their behaviors early on as well. The point though is that the boundaries that they are learning to operate in will by definition stunt the autonomy that you want to be developed. The discipline or training that they are given will shape them into the mold of what ever moral code they are in. It seems like you say it is an abdication to willingly follow a religious code but it is not to follow a social code that you are more in agreement with.

      • You have to be careful in your attributions to what motivates children’s behaviours. What you might consider ‘acting out’ may motivated by many very legitimate feelings. Like everyone, we must learn to ‘act out’ in appropriate and (hopefully) positive ways. (It worries me that you associate ‘consequences’ with ‘suffering’ rather enjoying the full fruits of one’s labour – positive and negative). This is why I use the term ‘responsible autonomy’ repeatedly… owning one’s autonomy and exercising it in ways that are appropriate and beneficial not just in the immediate gratification sense you seem determined to put it in but also in consideration of being aware of consequences even in the longer term.

        Responsibility is a difficult and complex understanding to achieve relative to what that means and looks like to one’s exercise of autonomy, which is why it takes (usually) decades before being mastered… and even then only by some of us. This process is not aided by authoritarianism and parental control of behaviour (see the link to mandating respect for religious authority, anyone?) but needs to to be crafted in ever expanding freedoms linked directly to expanding responsibility so that by the time a child reaches adulthood, both senses are interwoven into adult rather than childish behaviour. You tell me how many grown-ups in your life have successfully achieved responsible autonomy and I’ll show you a fraction that should be much larger.

        I don’t know how much time you’ve actually spent with children but your notion of how children learn boundaries is rather suspect. When a child’s desires coincides with parental wishes, then parenting is easy. It’s when a child’s desires conflict with parental wishes that the rubber meets the road and we learn very quickly just how well armed are the parents to teach. One of my favourite points to make with parents who use corporal punishment is to point out that if it worked, you’d never have to hit again. Does it achieve this end? Of course not because physical punishment is not a reinforcer of any kind but an admission of parental failure. Once armed with better, more effective teaching tolls that really does alter children’s behaviour in permanent and positive ways, a parent would have to be crazy to insist on using a method he or she knows does not work. Authority is one of the worst teaching tools available and most teachers – and most good parents – find this out very quickly.

        The claim that religious authority backs up appropriate human morality is an atrociously bad argument from every angle.

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